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Social media probed for role in U.K. riots

A police officer in riot gear stands in front of a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London.

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Research In Motion Ltd., the maker of BlackBerry smart phones, said on Monday it was assisting the Metropolitan Police with its investigation into the London riots after its messaging service emerged as one of the technological tools used by young people involved in the violence.

Police, politicians and some media outlets were quick to blame social media for galvanizing the weekend's disturbances in Tottenham, Brixton and Enfield, in spite of few incriminating tweets being produced as proof.

Commander Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, said Twitter users could face legal repercussions if they were found to be inciting violence: "That investigation is already under way."

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Mr. Kavanagh told reporters that some messages on the website had been "inflammatory" and "inaccurate." Twitter declined to comment.

BlackBerry devices are the most popular smart phone among the U.K.'s young people, used by more than a third of teenagers, according to Ofcom, the media regulator. BlackBerry Messenger, the free texting service that comes bundled with RIM's mobile phones, was cited by bloggers and Twitter users as one way that looters in Enfield organized themselves.

BBM is a private messaging network that requires users to share a PIN before they can be contacted.

RIM took to Twitter to express sympathy with those affected by the disorder: "We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can."

Last year, the Canadian company came under pressure from authorities in India and the United Arab Emirates to grant them access to its messaging system, purportedly for security purposes.

"We comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and U.K. police forces," RIM said in a statement on Monday. The act enables authorities to obtain information about individuals' communications from their internet service providers and to intercept messages in transit.

On Monday, some technologists dismissed the idea that any particular social network could be held responsible for the behaviour of its users.

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"I don't remember SMS and phone calls being blamed for riots years ago," said Matt Brian, mobile editor at The Next Web, a tech news website.

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